At first glance, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about a Berlin academic panel that took place last summer. Held as part of the “Emerging Technologies and the Future of Citizenship” international workshop, the “Digital Demos and Algorithmic Citizenship” panel examined such rarefied topics as digital identity, the “gamification of citizenship” and the “tokenization of rights.”
The June 12 panel, in fact, might otherwise have escaped the attention of those of us in the non-academic world were it not for the participation of one particular expert in digital culture, University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Cheney-Lippold is the American culture professor who this month refused to write a recommendation letter for a student to study abroad in Israel. Citing the international academic boycott of the Jewish state endorsed by the American Studies Association, Cheney-Lippold — who had originally agreed to recommend the student for a study abroad program, but rescinded the offer when he learned of the destination — told the student by email that “many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
The professor equated writing the letter with crossing a picket line. “I would hope anyone who cares about injustice, such as Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinians, would make a similar decision,” he went on. “Israeli universities are complicit institutions — they develop weapons systems and military training. Standing up for freedom, justice and equality for all is something I’m proud of.”
He apparently wasn’t proud enough to invoke the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel when his own professional development was at stake, as evidenced by his participation in the panel in Berlin. That gathering happened to be co-sponsored by the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, a supposedly “complicit institution” in the language of BDS, making Cheney-Lippold’s participation a violation of the guidelines promulgated by the ASA-backed Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
While Cheney-Lippold may be an expert in the field of digital identity studies, he’s also clearly a hypocrite. So it is refreshing to know that the University of Michigan, as well as its American Culture department, quickly condemned the professor’s conduct once news of the refusal came to light. But as with most stories that whip up the public consciousness, especially on an emotionally fraught issue such as this, there’s a lot of hypocrisy to go around.
Among the many groups rightly blasting Cheney-Lippold for his actions are some that seemed to have no issue with the refusal of a religiously and socially conservative baker in Colorado to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. In that case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court before being remanded back to state administrators, the baker cited his religious convictions in denying the service to the couple and violating a local ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Providing the cake, he argued, would endorse a relationship he held to be prohibited by his religion.
To be sure, Cheney-Lippold did not cite his religious beliefs when he similarly discriminated against his student, albeit on the basis of her choice of study abroad programs. But he could have. I have no idea what faith he professes, but the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently endorsed the terms of the BDS movement. It doesn’t require much of a stretch to contemplate someone somewhere regarding a boycott of Israel to be religiously mandated.
What makes Cheney-Lippold’s actions so abhorrent isn’t so much that he believes Israel to be in the wrong. (Although his statement that he would have no problem endorsing an academic program anywhere else does lead me to question his intellect, considering that China, Russia and a host of other countries are worse violators of international law than Israel, assuming all of the asinine accusations of the BDS movement to be true, would ever be.) He is entitled to his opinions, however backward they may be.
But a professor, especially one at a public university, is not entitled to discriminate against students in the regular course of providing the academic services he is hired for. Just as a baker holds himself out to the public to provide baked goods, a professor holds himself out to the public to provide an education. And part of that service, subject to reasonable discretion, is the provision of letters of recommendation to academically deserving students. As there was no allegation that the student in question was not, in Cheney-Lippold’s opinion, qualified to study abroad, his refusal — although rooted in his own principles — is simply unconscionable.
When it comes to questions like this — where a provider of services is discriminating in their provision on the basis of their personal morals — there are only two possible ways to view them in an intellectually honest way. Either we take the libertarian approach and allow each person to be the judge of his or her own actions as a matter of free speech — meaning that both the baker and Cheney-Lippold would be held harmless — or we recognize that discrimination on the basis of anything other than a person’s abilities and worth as a human being is inherently wrong.
Anyone who rallied to support the couple discriminated against in Colorado should similarly be calling for Cheney-Lippold to be disciplined. By the same token, anyone who is rallying to the defense of his student should be among the first to decry treating people differently on the basis of their gender, their religion, their race or any other aspect of their identity. l
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.